One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes was something he thought came from Dante: “The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.”
As it turns out, the quote is apocryphal. But what Dante did write was far better, and it came vividly to mind last week as Republicans failed to take a stand after President Trump’s racist tweets and chants of “Send her back,” directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who immigrated here from Somalia, at a Trump rally in North Carolina.
In Dante’s Inferno, the moral cowards are not granted admission to Hell; they are consigned to the vestibule, where they are doomed to follow a rushing banner that is blown about by the wind. When Dante asks his guide, Virgil, who they are, he explains:
This miserable way is taken by sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.
They now commingle with the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.
They are destined to be forgotten. “The world will let no fame of theirs endure,” Virgil explains. “Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.” Dante describes the vast horde who chase after the elusive banner that “raced on so quick that any respite seemed unsuited to it.” Behind the banner, he writes, “trailed so long a file/ of people—I should never have believed/ that death could have unmade so many souls.”
President Trump was not merely using racist tropes; he was calling forth something dark and dangerous.
And to those ranks we can now add all the politicians, pundits and camp followers who refused to take a stand when they were confronted with this stark moral choice posed by Mr. Trump’s racist attacks on four minority freshmen Democratic women.
Despite some feeble attempts at rationalization, there was clarity to the president’s language and his larger intent. Mr. Trump was not merely using racist tropes; he was calling forth something dark and dangerous.
The president did not invent or create the racism, xenophobia and ugliness on display last week; they were all pre-existing conditions. But simply because something is latent does not mean it will metastasize into something malignant or fatal. Just because there is a hot glowing ember does not mean that it will explode into a raging conflagration.
In a healthy society, that burning ember may not ever be completely extinguished. But the mores, values and taboos of society would keep it controlled, isolated and small. Now Mr. Trump is stoking the fire.
Abraham Lincoln appealed to our “better angels.” Trump has given us permission to indulge our fouler impulses.
Democracy is fragile because we are all an odd mix of prejudices, vices, virtues, bigotries and aspirations. We can be demons or angels. That’s why moral leadership matters; society can go either way. “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either,” argued Alexander Solzhenitsyn, “but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts.”
This is why what Mr. Trump is doing is so dangerous and destructive. Abraham Lincoln appealed to our “better angels.” The president has given us permission to indulge our fouler impulses.
And so we have Americans chanting, “Send her back! Send her back!”
Privately, we are told, some Republicans were horrified. But few were willing to speak out publicly. They chose to stand apart.
This is where the G.O.P.’s Faustian bargain has led: Their moral compromises and silence have become a habit.
Someday, we can expect to read lachrymose mea culpas from members of the G.O.P. who will confess that they regretted siding with Mr. Trump or remaining silent, and they will unburden their freighted consciences in memoirs and op-ed pieces.
They will assure us that their silence did not reflect who they really are. But it did because this was the moment when they had to make a choice.
Unfortunately, this is where the G.O.P.’s Faustian bargain has led: Their moral compromises and silence have become a habit. The small surrenders become larger ones until there is nothing left.
Some of them are motivated by fear of the president’s wrath or by the political pragmatism of politicians who are obsessed with self-preservation. Others simply hope to ride out the news cycle, hoping the entire incident will be quickly forgotten.
But at some level, I suspect, they know that this was a defining moment. And it reminds us that while we celebrate political and moral courage, we forget that genuine political courage is vanishingly rare. We remember St. Thomas More but gloss over the fact that he stood virtually alone among his peers in speaking truth to the power of his age. Hilaire Belloc captured the moment:
Most of the great bodies—all the bishops except Fisher—had yielded. They had not yielded with great reluctance but as a matter of course. Here and there had been protests, and two particular monastic bodies had burst, as it were, into flame. But that was exceptional. To the ordinary man of the day, anyone, especially a highly placed official, who stood out against the King’s policy was a crank.
Unlike his colleagues, Thomas More did not make a bargain with his soul.
And those who did? Who remembers them now? As Virgil counseled, “Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.”